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I'm a Cairns, far north Queensland, Australia professional photographer specialising in travel, editorial and environmental portraiture.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

When are you good enough to get paid for your photography?

This post is inspired by a recent blog post by my good friend and fellow travel photographer/writer Ewen Bell. You can read the post on The Red Rambutan. With the fantastic title of Hypocritical Bollocks how could you not want to read it?

Anyway what inspired the post is, in a nutshell, the increasing lack of respect for professional quality travel photography. In an age where there seem to be a million people just happy to give their pictures away just for the thrill of being published what incentive is there for multi-million dollar publishing houses to pay for content when they can get it for free and increase the profits for themselves.

But the argument that many newbie photographers make is that they don't feel they can charge for their photography when they first start out. In fact Ewen's post was inspired by a discussion group which was talking about a survey of freelance writers here in Australia which found that some people had been writing for major publications for months but were too afraid to ask for money. Major publications that are part of some of the world's largest publishing groups. Like they can't afford to spare some loose change for content.

Here's the thing. Your photography is not you. Whether somebody likes your pictures or not says nothing about what they think about you. So once you can separate yourself from your art then you can put the objective thinking cap on. If you have a picture (or a piece of writing for that matter) and a publication tells you that they want to put it in their magazine (newspaper, website etc) they are telling you that that picture is good enough to print. It has value. 

More to the point it has value to them. That picture is going to help elevate the status of their publication or product. That picture will help them to make money. Let me repeat that - your picture(s) will help them to make money.

They're not putting it in there because they like you, they're putting it in there because they know that doing so will help sell something. By publishing good photography they will encourage people to look at their publication. Whether it is a paid for publication or not is irrelevant. By attracting viewers they are hoping to turn those viewers into profit. Whether it is by encouraging them to buy the publication, or if it's free by hoping that the reader will be encouraged to buy something from one of the advertisers, which in turn brings more advertising dollars. Great content equals bigger profits.

So when they tell you that your picture is good enough to publish your objective mind should be answering 'great, then it's good enough to pay for.' If you're thinking about offering your work for free in the hope that somebody will publish it, well you're behind the eight ball from the word go. They've already offered to publish it. No need to give the carrot to the donkey that's already walking!

The trouble is that a lot of the money making decisions are taken out of the hands of the editors that we work with. When they tell you they don't have a budget for pictures they're most likely telling you the truth. But it is at this point that you can make a big difference to the way the world works. If you give your pictures away because you like your editor and want to help them, well you're just going to keep the status quo going and actually make it harder for the editor to get a budget for photography. 

But if enough of us reply as nicely as possible (after all our editors aren't the enemy) that we just can't give our work away for free, then just maybe those editors will have enough ammunition to go to the bean counters with a list of all the people who are refusing to give their work away and just maybe things will begin to change.

Mind you I'm not holding my breath. But I have taken a stand and refuse to work with any profit-making publication that refuses to pay for pictures - especially those that will pay for words but somehow deem that photography is not as worthy as writing. It's not my job to support profit-making ventures that don't budget enough to pay their contributors. I'll make up the lost income in other ways that don't require me to sell my soul thank you very much.

Travel writing and photography has always been a low paying business. The age old laws of supply and demand ensure that the publications can pretty much dictate what they will pay you - and you won't be retiring early let me tell you. But we all have to look at our own costs of living and decide what kind of money we need to live and make our working decisions based on that. But I guarantee you that no matter how frugally you live you're not going to get far on absolutely nothing. Zip, zilch, nada. Even baked beans on toast cost more than that.

So just remember - if your pictures are good enough to publish, they're good enough to pay for.


Big Red Adventures said...

Great post Paul! You make a very encouraging point when you say "when they tell you that your picture is good enough to publish your objective mind should be answering 'great, then it's good enough to pay for.'"

Paul Dymond said...

Glad you liked it mate. I always try to be encouraging because I really do believe that if you really want to work as a travel photographer, asssuming you have the talent, you'll find a way to make it work. Seriously, the business side of this is much trickier than the photography bit. :)

Aerokev said...

Nice post Paul. Something I have always wondered about. As a wood craftsman said to me last year, it's not so much what value he places on his work, but it's what the buyer thinks it's worth most of the time.

ewster said...

I should add that some editors use the excuse that 'other publications do it' and hence it's an acceptable policy to not pay for images. It is true that more than one publication I know does this, but in fact the vast majority do not. Most do pay for images. Perhaps a campaign to highlight which publications short change their contributors (and hence the readers) and which do not would be a productive exercise.

Younes Bounhar Photography said...

Amen. I can't believe how many for-profits try to get a free pass! If you haven't seen this rant by Harlan Ellison on getting paid, it's a must! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mj5IV23g-fE&feature=player_embedded

Paul Dymond said...

Wow, it looks like we hit a nerve here. Thank you so much everybody for your comments and Re-Tweets.

Aerokev - you're right Kev, to a certain degree the market does dictate what the pay is. It certainly works like this for editorial travel photography, but it's still up the individual to value themselves and decide what they can or cannot accept.

Ewster - your post and our phone conversation inspired this mate. And I think that I've heard nearly every excuse under the sun! At the end of the day I don't know whether shaming magazines will make them change or just piss them off. I kind of like the subtle refusal of a large number of individuals to get the point across, although you could be right. Shame is a powerful motivational force. :)

Younes - I love this video. One of my all-time favourites. Every person working in the creative arts should watch it whenever they get offered to have their work published for the 'honour of it' and nothing else.

Keep the comments going everybody. The more we pass the word around the more we can create some sort of solidarity. Our work has value. It makes our clients money. We deserve a cut.

cfimages said...

Insightful and useful post. The thing that often annoys me even more than people expecting to use my work for free is people who offer such low amounts that it may as well be free. To me, that's trying to take advantage of me in an even worse way.

ewster said...

It's important to differentiate between editors and publishers here. Very few editors fail to appreciate the value of professional images, but are typically under budget limitations handed down by the publisher. Same goes for publications that pay very poorly.

I don't think it's helpful to take offense at poorly paid offers. We can get too precious about our photos and attribute intrinsic value to an image rather than appreciating that the value is nothing more than a figure determined by the market. As such the same image sold in two different markets may fetch two vastly different prices.

I wouldn't assume that a low price is caused by someone taking advantage. Having our work tagged with a value is a very personal experience for us, but for the editor they simply have a bunch of pages to fill and a limited budget from which to draw.

Travel media has the worst rates of pay for both contributors and editors. Everyone assumes we do it for love, there's a queue of hundreds waiting to get a foot in the door and the market price begins to fall rapidly. None of which is good news for the consumer who may be getting short changed on the quality of content (photos and words) without being aware of it.

Paul Dymond said...

Part of the reason I mentioned in the post that your photography isn't you is because I think that none of this is personal - at least I try never to take it that way.

I'm a pretty live and let live kind of guy and at the end of the day I realise that this is business.

So I don't get offended when people tell me they don't pay, or offer rates lower than I think is fair market value. Everybody tries to get the best deal, and as Ewen mentions often editors don't make the budget decisions and could even lose their own jobs if they spent too much on content.

Having said that, I always make a personal decision to draw a hard line in the sand about what I will and won't do. Just as it might be a publisher's job to try and get their content as cheaply as possible, it is my job to get as high a price for my work as possible.

It's all about profit-making and from my perspective my own profit is the most important bit! I'm not here to subsidise a publisher's dreams to put out a magazine.

Especially if I'm expected to pay for it out of my own pocket - which is of course you're doing if you're giving your work away for free. After all who's paying for all that time to put together a submission, caption images and ftp images to clients. It's not free you know.

But, as I said, even though I dislike it I certainly don't take it personally. I state my case and why I can't license my images for the price (or lack of!) that they're asking and move on to the next client. No hard feelings just don't call again unless you've got some cash. :)

Learning said...

This is a really good post. I don't really understand why anyone would support profit-making organsiations by giving their photos away for free.

I suppose there would be an initial kick from getting published, but, like you said, if the world was built on this premise then there wouldn't be any professional photographers left...!

cfimages said...

I should specify that I'm referring to annoyed on a professional level, not personal.

Paul Dymond said...

I figured you were Craig and I know where you're coming from mate believe me. I've been doing this for a little over 13 years now and at first it used to bug the hell out of me. Now it just bugs me a little bit. :)

I've learnt to just let it go and move on. I realised that I can't afford to work with every client, and not every client can afford to work with me. That's just the way it is. I try to be as accommodating as possible given the incredible changes in the marketplace over the last few years but free for profit-making clients is somewhere I just won't go.

None of them can ever explain to me why,out of all the people involved in the production of a magazine, the photographer is the only one who has to supply stuff for free. Bizarre.

But as Ewen mentioned travel really is one of the lowest paying areas of photography just because it's so attractive. As Learning said, people want that gratification that comes from getting your picture published.

That over-supply of good images means that prices are just getting lower. So I'm guessing that we're going to get more and more offers to publish our work for 'a credit'.

The only control we have over the situation is to choose how we handle it. I choose to politely refuse and explain why in the blind hope that others will do the same and this will put pressure on magazines to change. Like I said though, I may be an idealist but I'm not a breath-holding one.